Rare, elusive snow leopard’s ‘terrible beauty’
The urgent shout, the one we’ve been waiting for, comes from outside my tent somewhere. I’m half asleep, half dressed and cradling a cup of chai to warm half-frozen hands, but the words get my whole attention.
“Leopard! Leopard! Leopard!”
I scramble: Chai sloshes across my pants as I shove feet into socks, pull a sweater over my head, cram gloves and hat into pockets, unzip my tent with one hand and grab my camera and boots with another. I sprint in my socks to where Sonam, the tracker who shouted the alert, stands, head down, seemingly merged with the telescope. After a quick “jullay” (an all-purpose Ladakhi word for hello, goodbye and thank you), he steps quickly aside to let me look.
Up to this point on a trekking expedition into the spectacularly jagged Ladakh region of India, high in the Himalayas at the northern corner of the country, the snow leopard has lived up to its reputation for extreme elusiveness.
But among these snowdraped mountains southwest of the town of Leh that rise to more than 20,000 feet is where the snow leopard lives, albeit quietly and stealthily. It is what brought author Peter Matthiessen to the mountain range in Nepal. The allure of spying the animal “whose terrible beauty is the very stuff of human longing,” Matthiessen said in the book “The Snow Leopard,” can make it difficult to live with potential disappointment.
It’s a thought that’s difficult to escape, even as a I lean in to look through Sonam’s telescope. My expectations rise and fall like the landscape, but there’s a constant realization that, in the end, I might be tracking a ghost.
With our duffel bags and camping supplies tied to the backs of sturdy mountain ponies, we hike up the trail to our campground in Hemis High Altitude National Park. The more than 2,000-square-mile park in the northernmost district of Ladakh has perhaps 60 snow leopards, said Khendrup, a camera trap specialist who has worked with the local forest department and the Snow Leopard Conservancy. About nine of those reside in the Husing Valley, the deep canyon at 12,500 feet where our camp is based. Thankfully, local trackers with the Mountain Travel Sobek excursion — Sonam, Chitta and Morup — know the territory, and the wildlife, well.
Herds of bharal climb the steep cliffs of slate-blue shale on either side of the canyon as we walk. Also known as blue sheep, they’re one of the snow leopard’s main prey, and are sometimes hard to spot, so well does their coloring blend with the stone. A large black yak with intimidating twisted horns wanders through our campsite before tents are pitched, but he seems to prefer hanging out near the kitchen tent, where scraps are plentiful.
We settle in, organizing tents and hanging prayer flags, fetching water from the river through a hole cut in the thick ice, while always scanning the horizon with eyes, camera lenses, and telescopes. Short hikes are for both acclimatization and wildlife viewing, and before the light disappears behind the Zanskar range, we spy more bharal, lammergeier (bearded vulture), chukar partridge and woolly hare, as well as snow leopard tracks from the previous night.
When dinner is over and all have settled into their sleeping bags with two hot water bottles each, I walk quietly in the dark across the trail to gaze at the night sky in the clear air. Staring straight up at the brilliance of stars, I hardly notice the whoosh of an animal running past me. In the beam of my flashlight, I find it — not a snow leopard, but a red fox.
Like another light, a passage from “The Snow Leopard” flicks on in my memory: “If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. … That the snow leopard is, that it is there, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain — that is enough.”
While the leopard has a reputation of being impossible to find, I’m not sure I can release all expectation. Will it be enough just being here in the home of the beast often referred to as the Gray Ghost?
Finding the big cat in the Ladakh region of India, is difficult — especially with only an estimated 200 to 300 in the area — at best, an average of one leopard per an area twice the size of Bryce Canyon National Park. Nobody has an exact count of the majestic shan, as it’s called in Ladakh, because the animal is so elusive and inhabits a challenging and remote habitat of desert, mountains, glaciers, high passes and plateaus.
Historically, they’ve been
poached for their fur, or killed by ranchers with sheep or cattle, which the leopards can prey on. As with most endangered species, human encroachment and climate negatively affect the habitat, although in recent years, locals in some regions have seen the value of of leopard-related tourism and are working to preserve them.
Here, among some of the harshest conditions on the planet, in a former Buddhist kingdom with picturesque gompas, whitewashed stupas and mani walls set among an almost supernatural landscape, seems the appropriate place to search for a creature whose mystique seems to be rivaled only by yeti and unicorns.
It’s not just numbers that make snow leopards a challenge to spot.
In the rugged mountains, with rust- and amber-colored rocky outcrops and fields of bright snow, the snow leopard’s thick, frosty gray fur patterned with darker gray open rosettes is a chameleon-grade camouflage.
Gazing into Sonam’s telescope for a few moments, I see nothing but rock and cliff face. No movement, no magnificent leopard. If it’s there, it’s invisible. And then, I see it, stalking across a ridge — pale gold eyes fixed on something I cannot see. Its fur has a hint of topaz and the thick tail that measures as long as the animal’s body sways in the air, like the twitching tail of a house cat. Broad paws tread slowly on the edges of the cliff, and the leopard, like moonlight on snow, flows low to the ground in a crouch.
Suddenly, it leaps down the cliff face, twice diving into the dirt to cloak its scent, before charging in the direction of a small herd of bharal. They scatter, jumping in all directions across crumbling rock and patches of snow, like a handful of dust in the air — poof. Thwarted, the leopard stops and looks down the mountain in the direction of the small collection of trackers and photographers that have been silently and excitedly gathering since Sonam’s call.
We continue to watch the snow-cloud-colored cat for five hours, while it naps on a sunbeam-warmed rock, stalks more bharal (but doesn’t catch one) and sniffs the air. I hardly notice that I’m still clutching my now-empty cup in my hands, never tied my boot laces, and haven’t yet eaten.
Getting my first, and perhaps only, glimpse of a snow leopard in the wild is enough.
Days later, after a second sighting, we move to another area known for its leopards. The small village of Ulley lies north of the Indus River, in the Ulley Chhu Valley, at about 13,000 feet. The village has maybe seven houses, one of which is the Snow Leopard Lodge, where we drop our bags quickly before following the trackers to a small rise so we can scan nearby mountain ridges for wildlife.
Instead of the bharal from Husing, this region is populated by goat-like ibex and urial, horned sheep with long legs. We immediately spy examples of each, but there’s not yet a snow leopard. Other small groups that have come to Ulley for wildlife expeditions make note of where and when our trackers are, and the resulting scrum looks like a Hollywoodstyle phalanx of paparazzi.
Researchers estimate that there are about 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards left in the wild, and though that number may initially seem large, the animals are scattered in remote regions across Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The cats have already disappeared from some areas where they formerly lived, such as parts of Mongolia. That we have seen two thus far seems like a miracle.
The fact that snow leopards are rare doesn’t entirely explain why photographers and wildlife buffs are so compelled to trek into thin air to find them. Likely it is the rarity combined with the cat’s remote habitat and preference to avoid humans, as well as the popularity of Matthiessen’s book and its focus on the glory of a good quest.
I stand in the cold with the small group of snow leopard enthusiasts, the light snowfall causing concerns about limited visibility. On one side of the valley, a pack of Tibetan wolves plays hide-and-seek with our telescopes — coming out into the open when they see our attention is divided, and hiding behind a ridge when we focus on them.
On the other side, proving that patience sometimes wins out, a lone snow leopard stalks a group of urial.
Outdoors in the grandeur of the Himalayas, humans stop for a moment, whisper and trade places at telescopes, share chai, and wonder at the magic of a ghost.
The Thiskey Monastery is the largest monastery in the Central Ladakh district.
Quiet enthusiasts wait patiently for a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard.